In American Made Movie, documentarians Nathaniel Thomas McGill and Vincent Vittorio explore the drastic loss in American manufacturing jobs over the last four decades. In their analysis, the trend isn’t confined to layoffs at companies who’ve moved their operations overseas in order to cut production costs and increase profits; it’s also a movement that’s given birth to a deleterious trickle-down effect. For those communities built around, and reliant on, such companies, departures for foreign soil have been lethal, resulting in increased unemployment, less regional spending, more shuttered businesses, and less tax revenue for local infrastructure and social-services spending.
American Made Movie spends copious time depicting ghost towns in, among other places, Detroit and Georgia. The camera gazes morosely at abandoned plants and landscapes whose beauty has been further muted by pervasive gray skies. The film’s message is clear: Things are dire in America, and the country’s post-World War II manufacturing heyday is a thing of the distant past, replaced by a new paradigm in which globalization, technology, and foreign government competition now neuter domestic attempts to compete on the world manufacturing stage.
Taking a cue from Michael Moore and his legion of imitators, McGill and Vittorio trot out loads of ominous data, charts, and graphics that provide a statistical foundation for their mini-portraits of a select few entrepreneurs providing a human face for this burgeoning issue. The outcome of this non-fiction structure is the impression that loaded arguments are being made from all sides. Since they’re never substantially discussed or debated by the many talking heads given screen time, American Made Movie’s numbers exist in something of a vacuum, save for a skimmed-over history lesson about 20th-century trends. And its individual tales of woe and triumph play like anomalies designed to pull at the heartstrings one sad moment (culminating with a flag-maker tearing up over 9/11), and then deliver some fleeting sense of positivity the next.
In a recurring storyline, Mark Andol, the owner of a welding and fabricating company, discusses the drastic layoffs he was forced to undertake after Chinese competition nearly put him out of business, and his subsequent success with a new venture that sells only goods made in America. The film intends Andol to come across as an example both of the domestic fallout from overseas manufacturing, and of the potential for Americans to re-energize industries via homegrown products. Yet by failing to contextualize his fall and rise in a way that would spell out how other businesses—or the country as a whole—could also turn around their failing fortunes, American Made Movie reveals itself as a superficial inquiry, substituting random anecdotes for genuine proposals about how the country might renew its manufacturing base while also maintaining the lower prices consumers now expect and demand.
McGill and Vittorio ultimately confess in voiceover that there’s far more work to be done to restore the American brand. However, their human-interest snapshots—which also include a jewelry-maker whose relationship with the Smithsonian’s gift shop was temporarily ruined by the availability of cheap Chinese knock-offs—project a confidence in the future that feels disingenuous in light of their stark inability to articulate anything approaching a possible solution (or series of solutions) to the difficulties at hand. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s all diagnosis, no prescription.